Regimens: The Cure for Spinelessness

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, April 1995

Regimens: The Cure for Spinelessness
By Dana Sullivan

"The spine alone is really just a flimsy stack of bones," says physiatrist Jeffrey Saal of Standford University. "It fully relies on the muscles and ligaments that surround it for support." Here's Saal's prescription of stretches and strengtheners; follow it at least three times a week to give your spine some backbone.

Hip Rotators
Lie on your back with your knees bent and cross your right shin over your left. Pull your right knee toward your left armpit and hold for 15 to 30 seconds. Switch legs and repeat twice.

Lumbar Extensions
Lie on your stomach, then prop yourself up on your elbows and hold for ten seconds. This stretch gently promotes full range of motion in the lower back. Relax and repeat.

Lumbar Flexes
Lie on your back, draw your knees to your chest, wrap your arms around your shins, and hold for 15 to 30 seconds. You should feel it in your glutes and, of course, your lumbar region. Relax and repeat.

Supine Hamstring Stretches
Lie on your back and pull one leg up in the air toward you, keeping the knee straight and the foot flexed. Stop when you feel like you're about to bend your knee, and hold for 15 to 30 seconds. (You can get a better stretch if you wrap a towel around your flexed foot and pull it toward your chest.) Switch legs and repeat twice.

Bad body mechanics can be particularly harmful if you do the old standbys like lunges and pull-downs improperly. Don't arch your back when you're doing lunges, and concentrate on keeping your abdominal muscles contracted throughout the movement to give your spine support. Back-friendly lunge technique will build glutes and quads.

To best work your lats, lean back slightly without arching your back as you pull the weight down. Keep your abs contracted throughout.

Spinal Extensions
Lie on your stomach and stretch your arms over your head, like Superman in flight. Raise one arm as high as you can without rolling over on your side, and hold for five seconds. Then do the same for the other arm and each leg. Do five sets for each limb. This works the erector spinae muscles, which run parallel to the spinal column and stabilize it.

Diagonal Crunches
This crunch variation builds the obliques, the muscles that attach all the way around from the lumbar region to the front of the pelvis, support the spine, and allow it to flex. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your head cradled in your hands. Use your abs to lift your upper trunk and twist toward the left. At the same time, bring your left knee toward your chest. When your right elbow and left knee touch, lower to the floor. Alternate sides, and be sure to keep the small of your back pressed into the floor.

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